Everett: Men’s basketball program can rebound as in ’14
Joe Everett | Wednesday, February 6, 2019
The Irish are finally trending in the right direction.
Perhaps, one might argue, on multiple levels.
And while Notre Dame (12-10, 2-7 ACC) pulled out a 79-73 win over Boston College this past Saturday to finally snap its five-game losing streak and gain back some semblance of respectability this season, the reality is that this isn’t Notre Dame’s year.
In fact, neither was last year, as injuries to then-seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell derailed Notre Dame’s hopes at a postseason run in the NCAA tournament. Instead, the Irish landed in the NIT after just missing out on a bid to the Big Dance, and they were subsequently knocked out by Penn State at home in the second round.
Long gone are the days of Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, of Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste or even of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem. Truthfully, one could argue that the program has been on the downtick ever since the infamous 2014-15 season. That season, Notre Dame stormed its way to an ACC tournament title, defeating blue-blood programs North Carolina and Duke on consecutive nights in Greensboro, North Carolina, to earn the program its first-ever league title in what was just the school’s second year in the ACC. That team went 32-6. It nearly knocked off then-undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, but a last-second heave by Grant from the corner sailed over the rim as the buzzer sounded, bringing an end to Notre Dame’s incredible tournament run.
That season was, I would argue, the peak of Notre Dame men’s basketball in the Mike Brey era. That was his most talented and perhaps the deepest team he’s had during his time here. To a casual fan, it appears that this year the program has hit rock bottom; that the Irish may be stuck in mediocrity for a while, never again to re-capture the magic of that 2014-15 season.
Then again, there might just be a rainbow after the rainstorm.
Why do I bring up the 2014-15 season, other than to laud it as the golden period of Notre Dame men’s basketball in the last 20 years?
Well, because the previous year, the Irish weren’t good.
In fact, the Irish finished the season 15-17, with a disappointing 6-10 record in conference play — their first year in the ACC. Notre Dame’s season included early, embarrassing home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State and a 2-6 record in January ACC play. The Irish struggled to make key plays down the stretch and lost many close games — their season ultimately ending with a first round exit in the ACC tournament.
When you’ve been a fan of Notre Dame men’s basketball for this long, these trends start to emerge. This year’s team appears to be on a similar trajectory to that 2013-14 team. And now you begin to see where I’m going with this: Could next year’s team completely turn it around?
I obviously don’t know the answer, and I do know that Mike Brey and the Irish coaching staff have a long way to go if they want they want to achieve as significant a turnaround as they did five years ago, but I have reason for optimism.
Everybody’s coming back next year, Rex Pflueger included. The current Irish freshman will all have a full year under their belts, and the team as a whole will have a lot more upperclassmen and overall experience to lean on.
Now, let’s get realistic and practical: What would have to happen for the Irish to get back in ACC title contention next season? Last week, Brey addressed the biggest need his team currently has right now.
“We have a little bit of a problem going and getting a bucket off the dribble when we don’t get anything off our movement. Somebody that can just go get a shot — that has been a problem for us,” Brey said Thursday before practice. “ … I do think Prentiss [Hubb] and Dane [Goodwin] will become that, and if they want to go ahead and do it in February, that would be okay.”
Through an incredibly challenging and frustrating season, Brey has kept a level head, and he is doing the right thing by throwing his young guys out there and letting them play — even if it hurts to see them get crushed by Virginia and Duke this season. The belief is that, as fire forges metal, the Irish will become all the stronger through those defeats.
Therefore, to get back to where they want to be, a lot of individuals need to gain experience and up their game. John Mooney is the perfect example of what the Irish need from several players next season — a guy who made a big jump in his game during the offseason. That’s what happened with the 2014-15 team, and that’s what needs to happen with this one.
“[We’ve] talked about recruiting a bunch, and then offseason development. … I think you have to when you’re in the situation we’re in, as far as what are your goals for the guys returning and that type of thing,” Brey said Thursday. “They’re all coming back, so it’s a matter of what you do in the offseason and development. … Who do we feel can make a big jump? A Mooney jump. Could we have two guys, three guys make those kind of jumps? We’re going to need that.”
Overall, it’s hard to say if the Irish are trending in the right direction. I don’t expect Brey’s squad to make a massive turnaround this season, but I do expect them to keep improving and growing as seen in their performance against Boston College. After all, with everybody returning, this season can be viewed as a series of practices for next year’s run.
So while this season may be filled with even more embarrassment and frustration, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Wait out the rainstorm, and if history is any indication, there will be a rainbow waiting on the other side, and maybe even a pot of gold.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.